Review: The Other Stuff

Outside magazine, July 1998

Review: The Other Stuff


Mountain Hardwear Front Porch

Your tent's vestibule may be plenty spacious for a weekender, but filling that nylon nook with the gear of a longer outing, or with a soggy canine companion, can turn a generous entryway into a congested crawl-space. Unless you have Mountain Hardwear's Front Porch ($130; 510-559-6700), a unique add-on vestibule.

By piggybacking onto the rain fly of most any front-entry tent, the two-pound, five-ounce Front Porch adds a luxurious 30 to 45 square feet of shelter to the five to 15 squares your three-season tent likely came with. To set it up, attach the tail of the Front Porch to the rear-corner grommets of your tent with two cords and anchor the rest with four stakes — a process that can be done while your ramen is simmering. An arched aluminum support pole comes equipped with an ingenious tension cord that lets you customize the roof height: Pull it wide when the rain falls sideways, or pinch it tight for four feet of headroom while cooking. Mountain Hardwear also throws in a short pole that turns the Front Porch into a stand-alone tarp, an airy alternative to a bivvy sack. The whole package measures 4.5 by 17 inches and fits into the side pockets of most packs. It certainly qualifies as a camping indulgence, but it will soon feel like a necessity on long excursions — especially if you're hosting a muddy quadruped who's vying for a protected patch of real estate.— Mark North

Classics: Mad River Canoe's Explorer

In 1969, Jim Henry spent nearly every waking moment on the water. If he wasn't running rapids in one of his handmade canoes, he was aboard a Navy ship as a civilian surveyor. And the 28-year-old marine geophysicist couldn't help but notice, in comparing one craft to the other, how the deeply wedged hull of the larger vessel steadied it in heaving seas. So he went to work on a new canoe, one that would split the performance difference between the flat-bottomed bathtubs of summer camp and severely rockered (read "tippy") whitewater racing rigs. His hard-core compatriots tended to write off his notions as irrelevant. That is, until the summer morning in 1971 when Henry dropped his fresh fiberglass prototype into a Class IV stretch of Maine's Dead River and walked away as national whitewater champion.

His convincing victory caused quite a stir, and Henry began fashioning boats for friends, friends of friends, and eventually complete strangers. He soon founded Mad River Canoe in Waitsfield, Vermont, and in 1975 introduced the Explorer, a 16-foot, go-everywhere wilderness tripping ark modeled on his original. It has since become the world's best-selling specialty canoe, inspiring an entire industry of imitators and knock-offs.

The design endears itself to paddlers for its unlikely coupling of stability and maneuverability. The secret is the shallow V shape of the hull, which gives the boat two "shoulders" to lean on in the tussle of big water. Not only does it allow you to dodge rocks in roiling rapids, but since the V mimics a keel, you can also paddle straight across a tranquil lake.

Today's Explorer remains largely unchanged. And insofar as a 69-pound hunk of synthetic can be deemed elegant, the Explorer warrants the description. It's trimmed with gunwales of resilient northern white ash, while the decks are milled from lightweight butternut. The seats are woven with cane — an anachronism among modern boats — giving them uncommon comfort and breathability. Since its debut 23 years ago, only the hull materials have changed: Now Mad River (800-843-8985) builds the Explorer in Royalex plastic and Kevlar in addition to fiberglass, and charges from $999 to $2,099.

I've dragged the Explorer everywhere from heavy whitewater in northern Canada to quiet flatwater in the Adirondacks, and it's been remarkably forgiving in all conditions. A few years back, a partner and I were paddling an Explorer laden with a full week's provisions through Maine's Class IV Kennebec Gorge when a six-foot standing wave swallowed us. The boat dove, and I assumed it would dump us into the frothing torrent (spray decks prevented a swamping). But its survival instincts may have been sharper than ours: The Explorer fought to the surface like a breaching whale, launched off the next wave, and landed confidently, allowing us to set up for the next onslaught of rapids. Henry calls his creation "the family station wagon of canoes," yet that seems an understatement. This vehicle is more akin to a Land Rover, primed for safari.— David Goodman

Photograph by Clay Ellis

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